The Stanley Cup could be coming to Waterdown, Ont., in the hands of Florida Panthers centre Carter Verhaeghe.
On Wednesday night, the Panthers swept the Carolina Hurricanes, winning the Eastern Conference final with a game score of 4-3.
It wasn’t a dream.<br><br>Your Cats are STANLEY CUP FINAL BOUND.
Verhaeghe and his team now move on to the Stanley Cup finals in early June, playing against either Vegas or Dallas.
If the Panthers win, the cup could tour Verhaeghe’s hometown, as it did in 2021, after he won it as part of the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning.
Not all ‘roses and sunshine’
A lifelong hockey player, Verhaeghe started the road to his second Stanley Cup finals years back, with the Flamborough Hockey Association, before joining the Junior Hamilton Bulldogs.
Verhaeghe entered the Ontario Hockey League with the Niagara Ice Dogs as a teenager. His former coach, Marty Williamson, told CBC Hamilton Verhaeghe was “quiet” the first of his four years with the Ice Dogs.
But by the time he left the team at 17, Williamson said Verhaeghe was “our number one centre, our captain — a very, very great leader.”
Ken Koroff billeted Verhaeghe for the four years he played with the Ice Dogs, which means Verhaeghe lived with Koroff’s family, “like one of the kids.”
“He was focused 24/7, hockey, hockey, hockey — which probably gave him the edge over a lot of guys,” Koroff said.
Verhaeghe was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of his run with the Niagara Ice Dogs, but Williamson said Verhaeghe’s path into the National Hockey League (NHL) wasn’t easy.
Verhaeghe was cut from the Toronto Maple Leafs and played in the American Hockey League for a few years before he was picked up by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who later won the Stanley Cup in 2020.
When Verhaeghe brought the cup home in August, 2021, then-Ward 15 Coun. Judi Partridge met Verhaeghe.
“I have always known that the people of our community are capable of great things, and Carter personifies that belief. We are so proud of you,” she shared on social media then.
Williamson said he’s had a few OHL players he’s coached make it to the NHL, but said he uses Verhaeghe’s story to teach his current players, with the Barrie Colts, about the importance of hard work and perseverance.
“I use Carter when I talk to my players in Barrie now as a great example of it not always being roses and sunshine,” he said.
“Sometimes there’s some tough moments, and teams make decisions and you get to live with them and then you just got to keep working hard to keep getting that next opportunity.”
Now a ‘go-to’ player: former coach
When the Tampa Bay Lightning played for the cup in 2020, Williamson said Verhaeghe didn’t see much time on the ice.
But this season Verhaeghe reminded Williamson of “that player that I coached in his final couple years, where he was impacting every game.”
He’s one of two Panthers players from Ontario — defenceman Brandon Montour grew up partly in nearby Six Nations of the Grand River.
He said when Verhaeghe played with Tampa Bay “he was just a piece of the puzzle,” but now he’s “a go-to guy.”
Already this playoff season, Verhaeghe helped the Panthers knock off the former number one team in the league, the Boston Bruins, then surprised the Toronto Maple Leafs by beating them in five games, before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday.
“Seeing him succeed, you know, just puts a smile on my face,” Williamson said.